Ditka worship is a bit of a cliché for us Bears fans, but it does come with good reason. Before he stomped up and down the sidelines as the Bears head coach, he stomped over opposing defenses as the first breakout tight end in NFL history. As a coach, Da Coach came nowhere close to the greatness of the man who hired him - Papa Bear George Halas himself - but as a player, Ditka put in the kind of career worthy of the Hall of Fame and a retired jersey number.
Using the end man on the offensive line as a blocker is a game plan as old as football itself, as Walter Camp documented in 1896. Fast forward about sixty years from there, and "Ironman" football had fully given way to teams separating offensive and defensive squads. So while Sid Luckman played both QB and CB as late as the 1940s, by 1961, George Halas was once again ready to shock the nation with a new kind of player: the receiving tight end.
With the end no longer required to rush the quarterback half of the game, the ability to run routes and catch passes would slowly become the skill tight ends were judged by. Nobody better epitomized this shift than Iron Mike. Ditka could block, don't get me wrong - he blocked defenders with the same bone-crushing power that teammate Dick Butkus brought on his side of ball.
What set Ditka apart, however, was his ability to catch. Halas knew a good clock when he saw one, and took Ditka with the fifth overall pick in 1961. The pick paid immediate dividends for the Bears. As a rookie, Ditka became the first ever tight end in the history of the NFL to record over 1,000 receiving yards, and the twelve receiving touchdowns he notched as a TE that season held as an NFL record for 43 years. Ditka's receiving yards total for that season - 1,076 - is still a top ten performance by anyone to catch a ball for the Bears. Gold star for anyone who can name the six players who surpassed that for Chicago without peeking first.
The routes Ditka ran were nothing fancy by modern standards: it was mostly the same straight-ahead seam routes and fades toward the sideline still used by many an NFL tight end. The way Ditka ran them, however, was what made the difference. At 6'3", 230 pounds, Ditka could pack a punch as a blocker, but his speed made him such a dynamic player. On a route, Ditka could fly past lumbering, run-stopping linebackers into the secondary, where his combination of speed and size made him a nightmare for safeties and cornerbacks. Even in the "anything goes on defense" days of the 1960s, when it came to big hits, Ditka got the better of the defense far more often than they got the better of him.
Ditka's history-making run at tight end was a major step forward in the evolution of the NFL. With the tight end no longer seen as just another blocker, offenses took another step in their steady progress away from the run game. Within twenty years of Ditka blowing up the tight end record book, the Air Coryell and West Coach Offenses would have whole sections of their playbooks devoted to feeding the tight end the ball. Another twenty years after that, and the NFL finally was able to break Iron Mike's hold on the TE TD mark with another "new" generation of even faster tight ends.
There's not a lick of good tape to break down of Ditka's playing days, but there's always YouTube:
To say that Ditka was a great player would be an understatement. Not only was Ditka the first great tight end as we now understand the position, his rank as one of the best to ever play the position still holds up even in our own Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski (no relation) era. Most importantly, the role those current TE greats play in their offenses is a direct result of Ditka's pioneering blend of size, speed, and ability to catch the ball.
All hail Da Coach, but first, hail Da Player.